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The Making of U.S. Foreign Policy


The United States Constitution divides the foreign policy powers between the President and Congress so that both share in the making of foreign policy. The executive and legislative branches each play important roles that are different but that often overlap.

Within the Executive Branch, the Department of State is the lead U.S. foreign affairs agency, and the Secretary of State is the President's principal foreign policy adviser. Both branches have continuing opportunities to initiate and change foreign policy, and the interaction between them continues indefinitely throughout the life of a policy.

The President or the Executive Branch can make foreign policy through:

  • responses to foreign events
  • proposals for legislation
  • negotiation of international agreements
  • policy statements
  • policy implementation
  • independent action.

In nearly all of these circumstances, Congress can either support the President's approach or seek to change it. In most cases Congress supports the President, but it often makes significant modifications to his initiatives in the process of approving them. This is often through the “power of the purse,” as it is the Congress that funds the foreign affairs operations of the United States.

Congress can make foreign policy through:

  • resolutions and policy statements
  • legislative directives
  • legislative pressure
  • legislative restrictions/funding denials
  • informal advice
  • congressional oversight.

In these circumstances, the Executive Branch can either support or seek to change congressional policies as it interprets and carries out legislative directives and restrictions, and decides when and whether to adopt proposals and advice.

Events have confirmed that together the President and Congress make foreign policy, but they have not resolved the question of which branch originates or finally determines policy. The two branches share in the process and each plays an important but different role. The question of who makes foreign policy does not have a more precise answer for several reasons.

First, making foreign policy is a prolonged process involving many actors and comprising dozens of individual policies toward different countries, regions, and functional problems.

Second, the complex process of determining foreign policy makes it difficult to decide who should be credited with initiating or altering any particular foreign policy. The two branches constantly interact and influence each other.

Third, the roles and relative influence of the two branches in making foreign policy differ from time to time according to such factors as the personalities of the President and Members of Congress and the degree of consensus on policy. Throughout American history there have been ebbs and flows of Presidential and congressional dominance in making foreign policy, variously defined by different scholars.

At a glance, the congressional powers in foreign affairs appear at least as broad as those granted to the President. The President commands the armed forces, but Congress declares war; the President makes treaties, but not without the advice and consent of the Senate; the President appoints ambassadors, but they must be confirmed by the Senate. In contrast, Congress has several specific foreign affairs powers, including the important responsibility of regulating foreign commerce. Experience has shown that cooperation between the two branches is necessary for a strong and effective U.S. foreign policy.